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There have been a plethora of changes made to Tampa Bay’s roster since head coach Jon Gruden’s arrival via a trade with the Oakland Raiders in 2002.
Gruden has had eight different starting quarterbacks. The offensive line and wide receivers that helped the Bucs win Super Bowl XXXVII are no longer in Tampa Bay. Neither are Pro Bowl defensive stars like defensive tackle Warren Sapp, safety John Lynch, linebacker Shelton Quarles and defensive end Simeon Rice.
In fact, only eight players – fullback Mike Alstott, linebackers Derrick Brooks and Ryan Nece, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, running back Michael Pittman, safety Jermaine Phillips and defensive end Greg Spires – remain from the Bucs’ Super Bowl team.
The salary cap hell that Tampa Bay endured after it hoisted the Lombardi Trophy played a significant role in the jettisoning of several players and fan favorites.
However, Bucs general manager Bruce Allen and senior assistant Kevin Demoff, along with the rest of Tampa Bay’s front office, have executed a four-year plan that has successfully gotten the Bucs out of cap hell. Much-needed cap relief allowed the 2-1 Bucs to sign key contributors for reasonable prices this offseason, including quarterback Jeff Garcia, fullback B.J. Askew, left tackle Luke Petitgout, defensive lineman Kevin Carter and linebacker Cato June.
Despite coming off a 4-12 season and having money to spend in free agency, the Bucs were extremely responsible spenders during the offseason, evidenced by the fact that the largest signing bonus they dished out to any player in free agency was $3 million.
As a result, Bucs are currently $17 million under the league-mandated salary cap and are projected to be approximately $30 million under the cap in 2008.
Even better is the fact that the biggest names on the Bucs’ free-agent-to-be list are fullback Mike Alstott, running back Michael Pittman, tight ends Anthony Becht and Jerramy Stevens, cornerback Sammy Davis, defensive tackle Ryan Sims, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, wide receiver Mark Jones and center John Wade. Only two players – Becht and Wade – are currently starters.
If the Bucs want one or even all of those players back they shouldn’t have a difficult time re-signing any of them.
But that doesn’t mean Tampa Bay’s roster set is set for this season and the foreseeable future. Even if the 2-1 Bucs surprise the league and win the NFC South division in 2007, the replenishing process likely will continue to take place.
That’s because the Bucs might need to find replacements for several coaches who are believed to be in the final year of their contracts, including defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, assistant head coach/running backs coach Art Valero and special teams coach Richard Bisaccia, and find successors for several aging players through free agency and/or the NFL Draft over the next year or two. Take a look for yourself.
QB Jeff Garcia- Turns 38 in February of 2008 WR Joey Galloway – Turns 36 in November of 2007 LB Derrick Brooks – Turns 35 in April of 2008 DE Kevin Carter – Turns 35 in September of 2008 FB Mike Alstott – Turns 34 in December of 2007 DE Greg Spires – Turns 34 in August of 2007 C John Wade – Turns 33 in January of 2008 CB Ronde Barber – Turns 33 next April RB Michael Pittman – Turns 33 in August of 2008 LT Luke Petitgout – Turns 32 in June of 2008 CB Brian Kelly – Turns 32 in January of 2008 WR Ike Hilliard – Turns 32 in April of 2008 K Matt Bryant – Turns 33 in May of 2008 P Josh Bidwell – Turns 32 in March of 2008
The playing careers of kickers and punters typically lasts longer than that of any other position in the NFL, so the Bucs might not have to necessarily replace Bryant or Bidwell in the next year or two, especially since both players are off to great starts this season. That said, let’s leave Bryant and Bidwell out of the equation.
The oldest player on Tampa Bay’s roster is Garcia, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s playing. Garcia, 37, has completed 66.2 percent of his passes for 595 yards and tossed two touchdowns and no interceptions through three games. While he’s Gruden’s prototype quarterback, Garcia won’t be able to play forever. In fact, he turns 38 in February and is only under contract through the 2008 season.Â
That’s one of the reasons why the Bucs traded for QB Jake Plummer during the offseason. Plummer is retired and the Bucs have filed three grievances against him in hopes of either luring him out of retirement or getting $7 million worth of bonuses from him that he received while playing for Denver. Tampa Bay would ideally like Plummer to play. He turns 33 in December, but Gruden considers that young. Remember – Gruden signed Rich Gannon in Oakland when Gannon was just about the same age.Â
If Plummer chooses not to play for Tampa Bay, the Bucs might have to go out and find yet another veteran signal caller as neither Bruce Gradkowski nor Luke McCown are considered the Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks Gruden needs to successfully run his version of the West Coast offense.
How do the Bucs replace Galloway if and when he decides to hang up his helmet or when the aging process makes that decision for him? Galloway has caught 158 passes for 2,593 yards and 19 touchdowns over the past 35 regular season games. The Bucs have a 2004 first-round pick and a 2006 third-round selection invested in wide receivers Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall, respectively. However, neither player has Galloway’s speed nor have they demonstrated anything that comes close to resembling No. 84’s playmaking ability over the past two years.Â
Hilliard has been a reliable target, but he turns 32 next offseason. While Paris Warren appears to be a promising candidate, the Bucs likely will have to sign or draft a speedy wide receiver over the next year or two unless Galloway decides to follow in future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s footsteps and play football close to – or beyond – 40 years old.
Brooks isn’t playing like he’s 34 right now, but he’s not in his prime, either. Age will eventually catch up with him. That day is coming sooner rather than later. Tampa Bay will be hard pressed to replace a player and leader like Brooks, who has made 10 straight Pro Bowls. However, the Bucs do feel like his successor is on their current roster.
Tampa Bay signed LB Cato June to a three-year contract during the offseason. The Bucs feel June, 27, is capable of manning the weakside linebacker position in Tampa Bay’s defensive scheme. June is currently playing the strongside linebacker spot for the Bucs. When June eventually replaces Brooks on the weakside, Quincy Black, a 2007 third-round pick, likely would enter the starting lineup.Â
Black started his career with the Bucs playing middle linebacker back in April, but he was moved over to the strongside by the time training camp rolled around. As long as Black lives up to his potential the Bucs shouldn’t have to go far to find Brooks’ successor. That would mean the Bucs would be set at linebacker for years to come with Black, Barrett Ruud and June patrolling the field for the Bucs.
Carter has notched 98 career sacks and provides the Bucs with some versatility along the defensive line as well as leadership in the locker room. Like Brooks, Carter turns 35 next year, which puts him in the twilight of his career. One of the players he’s been spending quite a bit of time rotating with – Spires – turns 34 next year.Â
The Bucs have some younger players along the defensive line, including Jovan Haye, Gaines Adams, Patrick Chukwurah and Greg White. However, these players are far from proven with the Buccaneers, which means the possibility exists that Tampa Bay will have to sign or draft one or possibly even two players to help fill the voids left by Carter and Spires when their Buccaneer careers come to an end. The Bucs have the cap room, but proven and productive defensive linemen can be tough to come by.
Alstott is on injured reserve with his second neck injury since 2003, which has many believing his historic career with the Buccaneers has come to an end, especially since he turns 34 in December and is in the final year of his contract. The good news for the Bucs is they signed Askew during the offseason. He’s proven to be a productive fullback for the Bucs through three games. The problem is Alstott might not be the only back whose days as a Buc are numbered.Â
Like Alstott, Pittman is in the final year of his contract and turns 33 next year, and while he’s still healthy and productive, the Bucs might feel better served having a player like Earnest Graham, Kenneth Darby or a future free agent or draft pick help carry the load when Cadillac Williams isn’t healthy or running the ball well. Pittman is the ultimate team player and his receiving and blocking skills will be tough for the Bucs to replace.
Most of the pieces along Tampa Bay’s offensive line appear to be in place with rookie left guard Arron Sears and second-year right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. However, the Bucs will need to find a future starting left tackle and center to succeed Petitgout and Wade, respectively, over the next few years. Wade turns 33 in January and is in the final year of his contract with the Bucs. Tampa Bay attempted to replace Wade during the offseason by moving 2005 fourth-round draft pick Dan Buenning over from guard to center and signing free agent Matt Lehr. To Wade’s credit, he held both Buenning and Lehr, who signed a one-year contract, off and kept the starting job.Â
Buenning didn’t really impress at center, but he could grow into the position, which would give the Bucs Wade’s successor. If Buenning isn’t the guy for the job, Tampa Bay probably will have to find a starting-caliber center through free agency or the draft as early as 2008.Â
Petitgout is 32, but he’s playing well and has stayed healthy thus far. But Petitgout probably won’t play through his three-year contract. Although they have Donald Penn and Anthony Davis on their active roster, the Bucs don’t appear to have a player on their roster that would be considered a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle in the NFL. The Bucs would ideally like to groom their future left tackle behind Petitgout, so they could address this need as early as 2008.
Tampa Bay’s dynamic duo of Barber and Kelly at cornerback has been intact for nearly a decade, but the Bucs have to start thinking about the future with Barber turning 33 and Kelly turning 32 next year. The Bucs attempted to find a successor for one of those players when they invested a fourth-round pick in Alan Zemaitis last year, but he flopped and was released by the Bucs before the start of the regular season.
Tampa Bay is extremely high on nickel corner Phillip Buchanon, who re-signed with the Bucs during the offseason by inking a two-year deal. Buchanon, 27, likely will work his way into the starting lineup sooner rather than later. That would leave the Bucs with a void to fill for either Barber or Kelly, whose contract runs through the 2008 season. Neither Torrie Cox, who is serving a four-game suspension, nor Sammy Davis is considered a starting-caliber cornerback.Â
The Bucs invested a seventh-round pick in cornerback Marcus Hamilton in April, but he’s on the practice squad. Tampa Bay plays a decent amount of nickel defense, which means the Bucs could be in the market for at least one or maybe even two cornerbacks over the next year or two.
Roster turnover is just part of the NFL. Every team has to deal and prepare for it due to the fact that players don’t play forever and the salary cap doesn’t normally allow teams to hold on to all of their good players.
Should Tampa Bay continue to have success in 2007 and go on to win the NFC South division, Bucs fans better enjoy it while they can. This team, for the most part, could be kept intact for another year or two, but change at some key positions on Tampa Bay’s roster appears to be inevitable.Â
The good news for the Bucs is they’ve already positioned themselves to address most of these needs, especially through free agency, where they certainly will have the money to re-sign their own up-and-coming players as well as new ones that can help fill the voids left by the older ones.Â
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